Once upon a time, the Pac-10 and Big Ten ruled college softball. Before the SEC and the Big 12 emerged as competitive leagues, the West and the Upper Midwest controlled the sport. In 2022, the West is once again asserting its dominance, at least in the early going.
That is especially true of the Pac-12, which is sending over half of the teams that play softball to the Super Regionals. Arizona is one of those teams.
In the Conference of Champions, nine of the 12 schools field softball teams. On the other end of the country, 13 of the SEC’s 14 schools play the sport. Both leagues put almost their entire conference into the 2022 NCAA tournament. The SEC sent 12 of 13 while the Pac-12 sent seven of nine, but it was the Westerners who found the most success once they got there.
Arizona is one of five Pac-12 programs that emerged victorious from the regional round. It was also one of three that had to go on the road to play a seeded SEC team. Sixth-seeded Alabama, No. 11 Tennessee, and 15th-seeded Missouri will all wait until next season while Stanford, Oregon State, and the Wildcats move on.
What Arizona moves on to is a fairly comfortable matchup against an SEC team that also finished below .500 in its league. The Bulldogs are currently 37-25 overall and went 10-14 in SEC regular-season play. That landed them in 11th place, just two spots from bringing up the rear.
The Wildcats one-upped Mississippi State. Overall, Arizona is 36-20 after regionals but went 8-16 in Pac-12 play. That was good enough to finish tied for dead last in the league.
It looked bleak heading into the postseason. Arizona appeared to have been added to the field based on legacy, but the team has turned things around and looks like it belongs. In fact, it looks like a team that could get to the Women’s College World Series.
The Wildcats are playing like a new team since the postseason started. They produced eight runs against the Fightin’ Illini on Friday. As has been the case all season, Arizona’s scoring came almost exclusively via the home run. The team had four leading to six of its eight runs in Friday’s opener. All of its runs in Saturday and Sunday’s games were scored via the home run.
What the Wildcats proved is that they can launch the ball out of the park away from the friendly desert confines of Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Perhaps more importantly, the pitching staff has shown that it can keep the ball inside the park.
Arizona’s pitchers gave up more home runs than any other staff in the Pac-12 this season. The Wildcats surrendered 1.14 long balls per game and 1.26 per seven innings during the regular season, but they gave up zero home runs in the three games played in Columbia.
The fact that Arizona didn’t give up a lot of home runs against Illinois is not a surprise; the Illini simply don’t hit many. However, Missouri was a high-powered offense this season with four players who hit double-digit home runs.
Mississippi State is a combination of the two teams Arizona faced last week. The best player by far is catcher Mia Davidson. Davidson was a talented freshman when the Bulldogs and Wildcats last met in the postseason four years ago. She had 19 home runs that season and hit .370.
Davidson hasn’t slowed down much since 2018. She has 22 home runs on .371 hitting in her super senior season. Over her five years in Starkville, she set the SEC home-run record. It currently sits at 91.
The problem for the Bulldogs is that Davidson has little protection in the lineup. Of their regular starters, only Davidson and two others hit over .300. Addison Purvis, who has started the last five games, has a .306 average to give them a fourth, but most of the regular lineup hits .265 or below. No one except for Davidson hits above .340.
As for power, Davidson has hit one less home run than Arizona’s Allie Skaggs (23). Skaggs has the support of four other teammates with at least 10 home runs: Sharlize Palacios (19), Carlie Scupin (18), Paige Dimler (10), and Izzy Pacho (10). Davidson has just one, Matalasi Faapito. The designated player/pitcher has knocked 13 balls over the fence but only hits .240.
The Bulldogs’ pitching staff has had a better season than the Wildcats’ hurlers. After a strong weekend in Columbia, every member of Arizona’s pitching staff except Madi Elish now sports an ERA under 4.00 for the first time in almost six weeks.
Mississippi State doesn’t have to worry about pitchers whose ERA are pushing 4.00. The Wildcats will probably see Annie Willis to start things off. Willis has thrown 126.1 innings this season including five in the final game against Florida State. She allowed six hits and walked two but gave up no runs to last year’s national runners-up. For the season, she has a 2.44 ERA.
Aspen Wesley is another strong possibility for the Bulldogs. She pitched in both games against the Seminoles, giving up two earned runs. Her 2.93 ERA is solid, but it’s not better than most of the pitchers Arizona faces every week in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats will face solid pitching, but they will not be playing in one of the more intimidating SEC venues when it comes to crowd size. While Nusz Park was renovated and expanded from its old 300-seat capacity in 2016, it still has a regular seating capacity of just 1,000.
Nusz has hosted crowds of over 1,500, but that is smaller than most major NCAA programs. In comparison, Hillenbrand Stadium has a regular capacity of 2,956 and has been expanded with standing-room-only entry for past postseason games.
The lucky fans who are able to get into Nusz Park will see the Bulldogs and Wildcats face off beginning at 9 a.m. MST/PDT on Friday, May 27. Game two will start at 1 p.m. MST/PDT on Saturday, May 28. Both games will be aired on ESPNU.
If game three is necessary, it will be played on Sunday, May 29. Time and television broadcast information will be announced at a later time.